It is not often that the lobbing of one of Donald Trump’s weekly twitter grenades offers an occasion to ponder the deeper dimensions of modern political thinking.
But the latest political demolition derby kicked off by a public presidential putdown of the National Football League for allowing players to kneel during the National Anthem has thrown into stark relief, while magnifying the importance of, on of the most intriguing issues in political theory over the last three centuries – and by extension in political theology itself.
The issue is the question of citizenship, and what it means in respects to individual rights and responsibilities. The backdrop has been the sudden follow-on to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s public refusal to stand for the national anthem during the 2016 football season as an ostensible protest against the routine death of black men at the hands of urban police officers.
When several more NFL players this season began to emulate Kaepernick, who is currently unemployed, whether to dramatize his cause or to demonstrate against what they perceive to be his blackballing by league owners for his stand, President Trump denounced the trend on social media and called for fans to boycott the sport until team members were fired for showing “disrespect” to the nation itself by refusing to stand.
As one might expect, an even bigger uproar ensued with several hundred players at weekend’s games “taking a knee” during the anthem and many furious fans appearing to side with Trump in the controversy, at least when it comes to standing.
An initial poll taken at the beginning of week found that 64 percent of all respondents answered “yes” to the following question: “Do you think NFL players should stand and be respectful during the national anthem?” At the same time, a majority of those polled did not have a favorable opinion of the President, and a few subsequent polls show that a smaller majority does not at all agree Trump’s demand that “kneelers” be fired.
A foreign observer might rightfully ask, “so what’s the real issue here.” As usual, the problem has been obfuscated by the seemingly instinctive penchant of America’s commentators to react by tossing their own brand of ideological kerosene on the fire. Those on the left immediately cry “racism” while those on the right shout “patriotism.” And, in ever more tiresome, broken-record forms of payback pundits at either end of the spectrum further accuse each other of concealing an opposite agenda behind their now almost clichéd expressions of outrage.
Let’s put aside, however, our now fashionable, but essentially brainless resort to ideological mudslinging and ask in a different way once more – so what’s the real issue here?
Unlike so many of my academic colleagues and students who have bought into the viewpoint that all social complexities today can somehow be resolved through a frenzied, wrist-slitting, mass exorcism of their favorite public arch-demon whose matted hair glows orange in the firelight, I would like propose that the issue of standing, or not standing, for the national anthem raises a more foundational question of what it means to be political at all in our hyper-identitarian age.
National anthems, whether those of America, France, Swaziland, or Uzbekistan, are by definition the ground zero for political identification. One does not “protest” any righteous cause, whether a given national Constitution has some clause approximating the First Amendment, by refusing to do what is expected during the playing of a national anthem without incurring the accusation that one rejects what that particular nation “stands for.”
The national anthem, usually associated metaphorically with the flag of the nation, is the political trope par excellence. As the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized well over a century ago, it is so potent that it amounts to totemism, where everything considered “sacred” about the form of human communality the nation is supposed to embody is concentrated in such a synecdochal representation.
As we are all well aware, Kaepernick inaugurated this form of protest last year as a means of leveraging his celebrity status to force the populace to confront the burgeoning perception that African-Americans were not being treated equally by the police in a nation that values “liberty and justice for all.” Racial discrimination before the law violates everything considered “sacred” about the American political ideal.
That was still the major motivation among players, both black and white, for “taking a knee” at last weekend’s round of NFL games, though it is obvious that many players did it largely as a gesture of solidarity with their teammates in defiance of the President. As 49er safety Eric Reid wrote this week in The New York Times:
It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.
One glaring motif which this argument, shared of course by a large segment both of not only African-Americans but those who are angry about the presumed disconnect between the nation’s values and its practices, misses, however, is that political dissent historically has been about calling attention to the latter rather than the former. The “transcendentalist” Henry David Thoreau, America’s premier dissenter who launched the time-honored tradition of civil disobedience, did not gesture against the ideal itself, only the idolatry of those who in starting the war against Mexico for somewhat cynical purposes prostituted the ideal itself.
The American Civil War itself was fought over this discrepancy. By adopting its own flag and its own de facto national anthem (“Dixie’s Land”), the breakaway Confederacy asserted its secession not only from the federal hegemony of the existing “United States of America” in 1861 but from the egalitarian ideal of America which the “peculiar” institution of slavery egregiously contradicted.
The triumph of the Union was tantamount to an institutionalized hegemony of the political ideal, even if only by force. One of the implications of such an historical outcome is that dissent is possible only against the failure of the ideal, or its hypocritical instantiation – not against the ideal itself.
To dissent against the ideal – as flag-burning, for example (or even refusing to stand for the national anthem), implies – is an act of dissociation from the concept of the political itself, even if it is technically “protected” from punitive repercussions. As noted French Marxist political theorist Étienne Balibar has observed on numerous occasions, to make a political statement is to “universalize” a certain position. Almost by definition, to universalize is to be “inclusive.” It is also to demand the inclusion of those who have de facto been excluded.
As Balibar writes in Politics and the Other Scene, “the whole history of emancipation is not to much the demanding of unknown rights as of the real struggle to enjoy rights which have already been declared.” (6).
That, of course, has been the real intention behind the national anthem protests, but the political reactivity of the protests, especially after the interposition of the polarizing figure of the United States President, has been the opposite effect. The putatively apolitical nature of professional football with its majority of minority players has been tacitly to affirm the emancipatory ideal, and to protest the symbolism of the ideal has had the unintended effect of signaling a rejection of the ideal itself.
Balibar himself, even with his professed Marxist sympathies for a vanished universalist vision of a stateless, emancipated global proletariat where racial prejudices are dissolved into the transnational “class struggle,” understands present day “nationalism”, for which populism, is one of its many historical variants. The idea of the “nation”, Balibar asserts, is founded on the notion of “citizenship” which in turn connotes the instantiation of a “real”, as opposed to a fictive, universality.
“Real universality,” Balibar writes, “is a process which creates a single ‘world’ by multiplying the interdependencies between the units – be they economic, political, or cultural – that form the network of social activities.” (170) In theory, according to Balibar, the nation-state is the only institution that can create real universality.
Today the only choice to the nation-state is the faceless and tentacular ghost politics of neoliberal economic hegemony where every grievance and form of identitarian affiliation are vacuumed up into the differential marketing mechanism of transnational capitalism with its anti-egalitarian logic of financial control. In many important respects the economics of professional football reflect the structure of neoliberal capitalism, against which with the current populist waves in the Western world constitute a significant, but deeply flawed, protest.
On Thursday evening the much anticipated Green Bay Packers versus Chicago Bears game finally figured out how to resolve performatively Balibar’s conundrum. Instead of kneeling, they all stood, but at the same time locked arms (while inviting the fans to do the same), thus demonstrating how implict inclusive ideal behind the national anthem should be transformed into a summons to all Americans.
As Balibar reminds us, nationalism is a double-edged sword. In its modernist incarnation, it has always been a call to what Hegel termed the “concrete universal,” a symbology of both unqualified human rights for everyone along with the demand for liberation of all those for whom the ideological aura of “universalism” is a manifest lie.
That is what the national anthem is supposed to symbolize. It took the Green Bay Packers, one of the present day icons of the “concrete universalism” of professional football, to make the appropriate statement about what nationhood genuinely signifies.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.